Professor Nicodemus and Ground Zero
Last time that I entered this building with any leadership capacity was nearly twenty years ago, on the morning of September 11th, 2001. That morning, I was leading a prayer group of artists, and by the end of the morning, my home had become “Ground Zero”. We lived three blocks away from the twin towers, on Murray Street. I remember leaving my loft, I entered the subway station at Chambers St., and looked up at the twin towers in a beautiful azure sky of the first day of school. After hearing of the “accident” I took my Number 3 train back to Chambers Street, and the train slowed to stop right before the station. Had the subway stopped a minute earlier, I would have gotten out onto Murray Street as the first tower was collapsing. The train backtracked for 45 minutes to 14th street, by the time I got out by the St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the nurses and doctors were rushing to create triage stations, I looked up at the plume of smoke, with both towers gone. I did not know if my family, with three children, all going to public schools surrounding the towers, have survived.
My family did survive that day, and my children did become Ground Zero children. The lingering trauma continues after twenty years. Our Ground Zero has been rebuilt: We are fortunate to live in a country that could recover. There are many places around the world in which that kind of a scar, and that type of violence is permanent. Isaiah cries out in today’s reading: “The whole earth is full of his glory”; but what about in the desolation of places of trauma, in our own Ground Zero realities? Where is God’s glory in the ashes of Ground Zero? How could these things be?
In today’s reading of Nicodemus coming at night to Jesus, and saying “how could these things be?” He is speaking of Jesus’s claim that we need to be “born again” of the Spirit, and we can be made New. But when we are accustomed to “earthly realities” of trauma and disruptions, of our Ground Zero conditions, and our pandemics, it is hard to imagine a world that can change or be rebuilt.
Let's take a look at today's passage in John 3:
3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Here, Nicodemus is seeking Jesus, but he is also sneaking in at night because he knows that it would cause controversy, as a Pharisee - a religious leader- to be seen with Jesus. So Professor Nicodemus (that’s what I call him, as I imagine him being a Rabbi/Professor at Yeshiva University if he were alive today) is as Jesus calls him, “a teacher of Israel”. Nicodemus desires to know how it is that Jesus can bring such miraculous healing to the trauma filled plights of Israeli tribe under the Roman occupation. People living in scarcity and fear and anxiety. People who have given up hope in the perpetual, generation battle, where the bleak broken realities causes them to despair, and this Teacher, Jesus, seem to speak of the New in the darkest of despair, bring miraculous healings, and convincing people with no power to have hope, at the very heart of their Ground Zero conditions, filled with ashes of memories lingering of trauma where their hopes were dashed over and over. In such a place of Darwinian survival, we have to fight our culture wars to win at all costs, don’t we? So we have gotten used to as Christians, the religious leaders of our day, that culture war is the only way to protect our tribe and our turf.
Carl Sagan, the famed atheist astrophysicist, used to start his PBS broadcasts with these words: “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” We actually believe this materialists’s conviction today, even in the church. The Cosmos is bound in materialist hard reality - there is no escaping of that determined perspective, right? So we may extend the cry of Professor Nicodemus (and Prof Sagan) “how could these things be?”
Be Born Again
Jesus answers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Is the Cosmos all there is or was or ever will be? Yes, in the Laws of the Flesh. But there is a disruption, a cosmic disruption right at the heart of darkness. Jesus is that disruption. Through his wounds, we may yet see a renewed world, even through Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or 9/11, this New Ground Zero can become not just a place of devastation, but a true Ground Zero, a cancellation point, a starting-over point, “Zero” point, Ground Zero, or as T.S. Eliot would have it: “the end is my beginning.”
So welcome to Ground Zero, the start of the post-Pandemic world. We are all Ground Zero citizens today. A Zero point, a place filled with ashes, a place of over 3,480,642 people (as of last Thursday) who lost their lives due to Covid-19. How could these things be Jesus? “Be Born Again”, Jesus commands us. And confounds us further by stating enigmatically: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” What are you talking about Jesus?
We just celebrated the Pentecost, where we remember that the Holy Spirit’s arrival to give us life and to empower us to our live the life that God has designed. Jesus had to ascend for the Spirit to arrive in power. We are dependent on the Spirit to live the impossible life of abundance in the scarcity filled universe. Jesus seem to say that no matter how smart we are, how much education we gain, or how successful we are in the eyes of others, this Life of Abundance will be a profound challenge to all of us. Even if you are a professor of Cornell University or Yeshiva, this is beyond your comprehension. Even if you understood how trauma works in your psyche, what happens to you or to me in the post traumatic experience is beyond our comprehension.
Poor Professor Nicodemus, he is subject to Jesus playing with him a bit here: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? …12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
Now, we may be puzzled by these word of Jesus, but I am sure Prof. Nicodemus was not. He knows the story of Moses lifting up the snake. These allusions, like a lightning bolt, must have penetrated Prof Nicodemus’s mind. Here’s what I imagine a sacred narrative going through Prof. Nicodemus’s mind: First, he considers the snake of Moses - this story begins not with the lifting of the bronze snake in the desert but earlier in Exodus, remember Moses trying to convince the Egyptian Pharaoh to release God’s people from slavery. In order to prove this God of “IAM that I AM” sent him, God caused Moses’ staff to become a snake, and that snake combats the snake produced by the Egyptian magicians (in a kind of a Hollywood spectacle as Moses’s snake devours the others magicians snakes). Nicodemus would know that Pharaoh did not relent despite this, until God through Moses pronounced that the Passover, that wind will blow, to kill all the first born. Now, that got Pharaoh’s attention, because he had a first born, and he was himself a first born. Second, Jesus is reminding Prof. Nicodemus that later in the desert, people were dying of being bitten by snakes, and God instructed Moses to create a bronze snake to be lifted up as a staff of God’s reminder of deliverance, and people who lifted their eyes to that bronze snake were healed. Artists, like Bazelel and Oholiab in Exodus who built Moses’s Tabernacle, your works are important because they can bring healing to show forth God’s Presence in strife.
Additionally, in Prof. Nicodemus’s mind, compressed in one single, enigmatic sentence of Jesus revealed the Biblical narrative of salvation of his people, as well as a complex weaving of the horror of God’s power to bring justice, and release the enslaved. Nicodemus also would have known, in the back of his mind, that later in Hezekiah’s time that Isaiah speaks from in today’s passage, that same bronze snake would have been turned into a relic, an idol, and people worshiped that, instead of the true Living God. Artists - know that your work can also be turned into idols no matter how much it may have glorified God in the past. Because the Spirit blows where the Spirit wants, and you do not know where we will go in our post Pandemic journeys, we are confounded. Prof Nicodemus’s mind must had been swirling, but now mixed with a renewed vision for him, and now for me: Creativity and Destruction co-mingles at the Ground Zero of God’s design. The Spirit of Death can become the Spirit of Life. What Prof. Nicodemus do not realize, but later discovers, is that Jesus is foreshadowing his own Death, the Death of Death, that he IS that first born who will willingly be sacrificed, so we do not have to sacrifice our first born, our Isaacs, as the sacrificial lamb to liberate all of us from our “bondage to decay”.
Kintsugi and Extravagance
I want to close by lifting up this bowl: a Kintsugi bowl. Kin is gold, and Tsugi means to mend. In a venerable Japanese tea tradition, when a tea ware breaks in Japan’s many earthquakes, they do not throw the bowl away. They consider the broken fragments to be more important now that it has been through trauma. Instead, they behold the fragments, sometimes for several generations, until a Japan lacquer master can mend with Urushi, or Japan lacquer, and highlight the fractures with gold. The resulting bowl is more valuable than the original. The fracture becomes a river OR a valley of gold. This is New Creation. Remember that in the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, his wounds are yet visible. Jesus, after going through all that he suffered, chooses to remain human. Not only that, he remains a wounded human with scars. I’d like to think that Prof. Nicodemus would have met the post-resurrected Jesus. After all, Prof. Nicodemus was there to help to secure Jesus’s body after the curse of his Cross, and give him the proper Jewish burial by anointing him with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight.” (John 19:39). That’s an extravagant gift, worthy of a Savior, and his Lord.
Let me summarize: Prof Nicodemus comes at night to see Jesus. Jesus says things that confounds his intellect, but invites him to be part of a New Creation by being born again. Professor Nicodemus responds by becoming a follower, enters into Jesus suffering, God’s Ground Zero, and gives extravagantly, as a sign of his New life in Jesus.
Where is your Ground Zero? Where are your fractures today? How shall we name them? We can be trapped in our Ground Zeros, or that place of loss and exile can be our starting point. There is an aroma spreading about in that dark lonely place of desolation. It’s all about the aroma, the aroma of Life, in the stenches of death in our Ground Zero lives. Prof. Nicodemus’s anointing would have been mixed with Mary’s wedding nard that Jesus was anointed in Bethany with, before his entry into Jerusalem to suffer. What we anoint Jesus with, sacrificially giving what we have in faith, and sometimes even endangering our reputations, or even at the cost of our lives, will be carried forward, beyond the grave, multiplied in the New Creation. Jesus said so himself upon Mary’s anointing of him with her extravagant wedding nard in Mark 14: Jesus commends her - “She has done a beautiful thing to me. ...Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Is “the Cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be.’? No! The New breaks in through the fractures of the old! The Aroma of the New always accompanies the gospel of the good news.
The New will be full of our sacrifices to honor Christ’s presence, by creating Beauty and providing Mercy, to bring Justice into a broken system. For some of us, that may cost about a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, despite the despair around us, or inside of us, as we decide to give extravagantly instead of being fearful and holding back to break the Cosmos wide open.
The New breaks in through the fractures of the old.
Through Jesus’s suffering and death, Prof Nicodemus would have experienced Isaiah’s words that he knows so well, “by His Wounds we are healed”. Jesus, the true Kintsugi Master, mends through our wounds, and pours gold into our fractures to make us beautiful. Isaiah states it this way, “Beauty instead of ashes” (Isaiah 61:3), “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair”.